Ask the Ethicist

Dan Candura answers readers’ questions on the ethical dilemmas financial advisers face.

What to do when a colleague's cognitive skills are deteriorating

This new column provides a forum for the discussion of ethical issues within the financial planning community

Jan 8, 2016 @ 2:30 pm

By Dan Candura

As human beings we encounter ethical choices frequently as we go about our daily lives. Do we tell the clerk at the grocery store he undercharged us for the organic bananas when he mistook them for ordinary ones? Do we return the extra five dollars handed to us in change when we paid for our tickets at the local metroplex?

Each of us handles these situations based on our own sense of what is right and our own beliefs about the importance of compliance. These decisions are unique to us as humans. None of the other creatures on this planet make such choices. Ethics is the framework that guides behavior between us. As etiquette guides our social interaction, ethics guide our economic interaction.

This is especially true for those of us who choose to provide financial advice to others. Inherent in the interactions we have with clients is their trust that we will act ethically. After all, what person would deliberately seek advice from someone they believed to be unworthy of trust?

Yet the choices we face are not always straightforward. There are conflicts and challenges along the way.

It isn't always easy to find the right path, so the purpose of this column is to provide a forum for the discussion of ethical issues within the financial planning community. The hope is that some of you will contribute by sharing ethical dilemmas you face as you serve your clients. You can tell me about the situation by submitting a description anonymously directly to my webform. All submissions will be treated as confidential.

Here is one to get us started:

Q: What do I do about a colleague in my office who continues to meet with clients even though his cognitive skills have declined noticeably over the last year? I think he might have Alzheimer's, but I can't be sure.

A: At the core of most ethically correct decisions is fairness. In this case, fairness to both your colleague and his clients. And, if this colleague is also a member of your firm, then fairness encompasses you and all of the other people employed by the firm whose livelihoods could be affected by the actions of this one person.

You said the changes are noticeable. Start by sharing with your colleague the changes you observed over the last year. Do this as compassionately as you can while just describing the facts. Let your colleague know you care about him and you want to provide the support he needs.

If he doesn't share the information voluntarily, ask him if he has seen a doctor. If he hasn't, suggest that he do so as soon as possible. Don't be surprised if he reacts negatively to your questions and suggestions. This is a common reaction to the frustration caused by the condition. You must remain calm at all times and assure your colleague that you care about him and want to help him deal with the situation.

Once your colleague recognizes that others are aware of the issue, you can develop a plan to provide support and assistance. This may involve a transition to a different role, teaming with another adviser or para-planner, or possibly retirement. As always, the goal is to identify a course of action that serves clients first but is also fair to your colleague.

Dan Candura is founder of the education and consulting firm, Candura Group. Write to him to submit a question. All submissions will be treated confidentially.

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